North Korean soldiers shot to death a South Korean official attempting to defect to North Korea, South Korean officials said Thursday.
According to reporting from the New York Times, the unnamed official was a 47-year-old fisheries official who served as first mate on a boat monitoring contested waters with North Korea. After excusing himself from his post Monday, his peers found only his shoes at the ship's stern.
Hours later, North Korean officials were said to have found the man floating within the country’s waters. A North Korean Navy ship approached the sailor, shooting him and then burning his body with oil, on direct orders from superiors, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said.
The Defense Ministry said that it had "confirmed from the analysis of various intelligence that the North shot our citizen found in its waters and cremated his body." Pyongyang has yet to comment on the matter.
South Korean officials suspect the sailor was shot and burned due to suspicions that he was carrying the coronavirus. Though North Korea has not officially reported confirmed cases within its borders, the country's economy has slowed in tandem with those of other countries experiencing outbreaks.
Seoul reacted with outrage upon learning of its citizen’s death.
"Our military strongly condemns this atrocious act and strongly urges the North to explain its deed to us and punish those responsible," said Lt. Gen. Ahn Young-ho, a top South Korean military official.
"The North Korean soldiers’ act of shooting and killing our unarmed citizen who showed no sign of resistance and damaging his body cannot be justified by any excuse," added Suh Choo-suk, deputy director of national security.
The incident marks the first death of a South Korean citizen at the hands of North Korea in the regime's territory since 2008, threatening to bring a sledgehammer to already dismal relations between the countries.
Cross-border relations between the Koreas have hit a nadir in recent months as nearly all formal channels of communication have been cut since early this summer.
Kim Jong Un’s public diplomacy has oscillated from silence to intense hawkishness, and his military operations have followed suit. Official reports indicate Pyongyang has frozen missile testing since April, but recent satellite images and rumors point toward the rollout of new and lethal weapons.